Thursday, August 24, 2017

Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (KECP), Panama City, Bay County, Florida: Behind the scenes with the Transportation Security Administration

At Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, security workers screen about 1,750 passengers a day during the summer months and will scan over 1.38 million bags in a year, largely through a single TSA checkpoint.

WEST BAY — If it all goes according to plan, both passengers and their baggage should move through security checkpoints at Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) with very little notice of the “robust security protocols,” in place, both seen and unseen.

On Thursday, officials with the Transportation Security Administration gave a behind-the-scenes look at the people, processes and technology in place to help keep passengers safe and detect potential threats to aircraft. Averaging about 14 flights a day and 22 flights on Saturday during the summer, the airport screens about 1,750 passengers a day during the summer months and will scan over 1.38 million bags in a year, largely through a single TSA checkpoint.

That being said, Petar Dimitrov, a TSA officer who has worked at ECP for about eight months, said most people get through the checkpoints in minutes with little to no disruption. Here’s what goes on at each stage of security screening and what technology is being used to detect threats.

Checked baggage

The life of a checked bag at ECP is a pretty good one. After being dropped off at the ticket counter, the bags are taken for a conveyor belt ride, like a lazy river but for luggage, through a series of rooms to be fed through explosive detection machines. Computer algorithms automatically sort the bags to prevent blockages, and if a bag doesn’t trigger any alarms, it shouldn’t be touched by another person until it’s time to be loaded onto the aircraft, according to Sari Koschetz, a TSA spokesperson.

If a bag does trip an alarm, it’s separated from the herd and taken into another room, where it’s run through another machine by a TSA officer. The officer can look at the x-ray image to determine if the alarm was just tripped by a harmless, everyday item, or they can remove the item, examine it and swab both the item and the inside of the bag for explosives residue.

If the item is prohibited — say, if someone has fireworks in their luggage (Koshetz says that’s a big problem during the Fourth of July) — then the airline is called. The airline then will call the passenger, who can either take the item back to their car if they’re local, or abandon it. The airline takes possession of abandoned items, which are regularly picked up by hazmat teams and disposed of.

Once the bags make it through the maze of conveyor belts, they’re dropped onto a luggage carousel, where they’re picked up by airline employees, sorted into carts and brought to their flights.

Passenger security

While their bags are moving through their own screening process, passengers begin their TSA experience at the security checkpoint, where they meet Dimitrov or one of his coworkers. At this point, passengers have already had their names checked against no-fly lists and will have their driver’s licenses scrutinized before entering the checkpoint. Dimitrov checks the picture on the license against the person standing in front of him, the name on the license against the name on the boarding pass, and uses UV light to check for security features embedded in the license.

If their driver’s license checks out, passengers move into the Advanced Imagery Technology body scanner. Unlike previous models, the scanners at ECP show TSA workers a generic white outline, with yellow rectangles marking areas that might conceal a threat.

“There are no privacy violations,” Koschetz said.

Koschetz also added that the machines are extremely safe, emitting significantly less energy than a cell phone. To demonstrate, she sent officer Tim Justice through the scanner with his badge and cell phone, which were both clearly highlighted with yellow rectangles. The items are then x-rayed and a pat-down conducted. At any point, Koschetz said, a passenger can request a private screening or a consultation with a screening specialist.

As the passenger moves through the scanner, their carry-on bags are x-rayed and tested for explosives. As with the checked luggage, if they cause an alarm, agents go through the bag and swab it for explosives. They also can swab passengers’ hands or clothing for explosives residue and can test liquids for explosives so they can be brought on the plane, even if they exceed 3.4 ounces.

Keeping the security line moving, especially during the peak travel months, is the priority of both ECP and TSA, and Koschetz advised passengers become familiar with what they can and can’t bring on the plane before they arrive at the airport to avoid holding up the line. Not to mention some items, like guns or explosives, can carry a hefty fine.

“You slow down the line for everyone else,” Koschetz said. “We do want to keep the process moving.”

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